2012 episcopal address: Developing a new generation of disciples

Saturday, June 2, 2012

By Bishop John R. Schol

The Prophet Isaiah had an uncanny sense of timing. He had a habit of sharing God’s compelling vision to the Israelites in just the right way, and just when they needed it the most. Isaiah spoke the Word of God when Israel was facing some tough challenges, having to dig deep to recover their primary identity as God’s people, and at the same time move forward during a time of restoration. These are the words God left ringing in their ears as Israel faced this critical time of renewal. Isaiah 43:19: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Now, thousands of years later, those same words from God are still ringing in our ears, even here at this annual conference session, as we face our challenges, recover our primary identity, and live into this time of restoration. “Behold, God is doing a new thing! Now it springs up.” Can you perceive it?

We see a church doing a new thing – a church with a God-sized vision, based in Gospel power that heals diseases, saves souls, eliminates poverty, raises up new dynamic spiritual leaders and grows missional congregations. We see a church where disciples gather for prodigal worship, connect with the non- and nominally religious, grow in small groups, engage in risk-taking mission and give generously to the needs of the world. We see a church that is preparing to receive and disciple new generations of believers.

It is a church whose unwavering belief in the Gospel compels it to be active in its backyard and around the world; a church that is giving bread to the hungry and sharing the bread of life for the soul. It is ending deaths by malaria and ending homelessness through supportive housing.

The church we see is the congregations of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. The world is our parish and you are responding to Jesus’ call with daring and determination in partnership with the people of Maryland, Washington, the panhandle of West Virginia and Bermuda and with our Wesleyan brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe, Russia and South Korea. You have thrown open the doors of the church so that all may enter and all may go out in mission and ministry.

We see us emerging to be the church where the non- and nominally religious claim us as a spiritual movement that integrates meaning and purpose into their lives. You have been doing the hard work of communicating the Gospel, and while not changing the message, you are being innovative in how we share God’s message and love. We see a new church that is forward thinking with social media and leaning forward into new expressions of the Gospel; a church that is not weighing in on being conservative or liberal, but weighing in on how to create a unified mission in a culture that is deeply divided; a church that is ready to become new and refashioned to connect with new generations of believers.

Let’s be honest, the church that you and I grew up with – the church I dearly love, that my mom and dad love, and my grandma loved – is, in large part, no longer relevant to new generations of believers. Our former structure with all those committees, designed to maintain the status quo, focused mainly on serving those already in the church. That inward-looking church, which also tended to practice dispassionate worship, no longer speaks to the non- and nominally religious. New generations of believers are seeking missional action rather than committee talk, they yearn for worship that grabs their hearts and challenges their minds, rather than quieting their spirits, and they long for disciples focused on the people in the community, rather than focused on serving the people in the pews. New believers are moving away from the image of church as a place for comfortable rest and reflection, to the reality of church as a springboard or trampoline for being propelled into discipleship in the world.

We also dare to see a healthy conference that gives shape to the new church and is a model for calling, equipping and inspiring effective leaders to make new disciples, grow vital Acts 2 congregations, and transform lives and communities. If we are going to be this type of conference, we will need to be more nimble at the top and more focused on the conference resourcing congregations for ministry and mission. We must be more focused on calling, equipping, sending and supporting spiritual leaders to make disciples and grow vital Acts 2 congregations for the transformation of the world.

We claim that the Baltimore-Washington Conference exists to develop spiritual leaders who develop new churches in their communities. We are reducing the size and budget of the conference to put more focus on, and resources in, the local church.

For the last six years, we have been on an ambitious adventure – to make more new disciples, grow vital Acts 2 congregations and engage congregations in community and world mission. You have taken on this challenge and, with God’s guidance and help, you have made significant progress. The Holy Spirit has been at work through our pastors, laity and staff.

In 2011 we had an increase in the number of new disciples joining by profession of faith. PRAISE GOD! Increasing the number of professions of faith was one of our key spiritual benchmarks.

Also in 2011, more than half of our congregations grew in worship attendance; most of these grew by 2 percent or more in worship attendance. This is more than a 15 percent increase over the previous year. We had more people engaging in mission, we had more new small groups, and we had more children in Sunday school. Wow! The Spirit is at work renewing and transforming lives through our congregations.

The spirit is changing lives. At Olivet UMC, the organist invited her neighbor to come to church to hear her play the organ. The neighbor was of another faith and so the organist was bit surprised when the neighbor came on Sunday. She continued to come and on Communion Sunday, when Pastor Faith said everyone was welcome to come to the Lord’s Table, there was some surprise when the neighbor came. The neighbor continued to come and one Sunday, she came forward to join the church. Jocelyn, the neighbor, said it was the invitation. Not the invitation by the organist, although that was key; it was the invitation to commune with Christ that changed her heart and she accepted Christ. God changes lives when we invite everyone.

We also had more than 16,000 of our disciples work in their communities during the Change the World weekend and, in Zimbabwe, we recently completed a new orphanage, community center, parsonage and church building. We have already given more than $600,000 to ending deaths by malaria and the denomination has recognized us as one of ten vanguard conferences because of our leadership in this area. We are moving forward on our plans to build two buildings in our conference that will provide 200 units of supportive housing as we work to end homelessness.

We saw an increase in the number of churches paying 100 percent of their apportionments and, because of your faithfulness, we paid 100 percent of our General Church apportionments for the 14th year in a row. Praise God for all the Spirit is doing through the Baltimore-Washington Conference!

We are already witnessing the new church in congregations and regions throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

  • I invite all of those from the Annapolis and Central Maryland Districts to stand. The Annapolis District and the Central Maryland District grew in worship attendance, professions of faith, people in mission, and apportionment giving. An amazing accomplishment. Let’s give it up for the Annapolis and Central Maryland districts.
  • In the last year, every one of our congregations set five discipleship goals and are now achieving their goals. One congregation reports that working on their plan and goals has reenergized their congregation to look at what God is calling them to be and do and disciples are stepping forward to implement the goals.
  • More of our congregations are implementing the 16 drivers of vitality and we are growing in the number of vital Acts 2 congregations in our conference. A congregation that achieved the Acts 2 fruit for the first time said they had been working on this for four years and that had refocused them on what God can do, instead of what they could not do.
  • Recently, a pastor reported that she woke up one Sunday morning and she heard God calling her to give an altar call that morning. God also shared that a man named David needed to hear the call and would come forward. What was strange about this was the pastor had never given an altar call. But when she gave the altar call that morning, guess what? David was the first one down the aisle.

God is doing a new thing, it is springing forth, don’t you perceive it?

While we are seeing the growth we all prayed and worked for in 2011, we are also experiencing challenges that must be addressed today for the health and continued faithfulness and fruitfulness of our beloved conference. In consultation with conference leadership, the Council on Finance and Administration will present a 2013 budget that eliminates 1 million dollars of spending. This requires changes to our budget, which will affect ministry, staffing and how we organize the conference.

The proposed budget will be smaller for four reasons:

  • First, we have fewer worshippers. Fewer worshippers in the Baltimore-Washington Conference means we have fewer people contributing to the mission and ministry of the church.
  • Secondly, salary, benefits, General Church apportionments and other expenditures are all increasing.
  • Thirdly, in 2011 we experienced less spending on ministry in our congregations, which equates to a smaller apportionment base and less apportionment income for the conference.
  • And finally, we continue to decrease the benevolence factor. The conference leadership committed to decrease the benevolence factor from 24.8 percent in 2005 to 16 percent by 2017. The proposed budget has a benevolence factor of 17.75 percent. If we were apportioning at the old rate, we would have 5 million more dollars for our conference budget. But we believe that 5 million dollars is better left with the congregations to make new disciples and engage in community mission.

We are not alone. Conferences across the United States are having the same, and even more difficult, challenges. We also know that we have congregations that are experiencing these same challenges and, with the 2013 budget reductions, we stand in solidarity with our congregations.

While this is the right thing to do for the future of our congregations and our Conference, it is not the easy thing to do. People’s lives are affected, we will have to do some things differently and some things we will need to stop doing. I call upon you to pray for our conference ministry and the staff. These are not easy decisions, but they are necessary decisions to position our congregations and conference to be faithful and fruitful for the future ministry of Jesus Christ. These decisions put more money in the local church for ministry and mission and also require conference leadership to do “a new thing” to achieve the fruit we all desire – new disciples, more non- and nominally religious young people engaged in our churches, ending deaths by malaria, and ending homelessness.

I am willing to bet that you do not realize that the conference budget being proposed for this year will be less than our 2002 budget. As a conference, we have found ways to adapt, and not just to hold the line; we have found ways to thrive and grow in ministry with fewer resources. What you have accomplished with fewer resources is now being replicated in other conferences around the United Methodist Connection. Our conference staff has stepped up to take on more and work smarter so that we can reduce the apportionments.

You have taken on a God-sized challenge to grow at least 600 vital Acts 2 congregations and 438 of our congregations achieved this goal. Congratulations! We are now one of the top 10 conferences for the number of highly vital congregations in the US.

Thank you for everything you are doing to serve Christ here and around the globe. God is doing a new thing, can’t you perceive it?

Today I want to talk with you about two hard issues within The United Methodist Church and the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Today I want to talk with you about:

  • Discontinuing or merging churches, and
  • Homosexuality

In the church, we want harmony and sometimes we want it at the expense of open and forthright dialogue. As a result, we experience misunderstanding, increased anxiety and mistrust within the church. If we are going to be the new church, we must decide how we will live with our challenges and differences. It is my hope that we will commit to engage in honest conversation and let love for Jesus Christ and one another be our aim.

In the last 10 years, 40 of our churches have discontinued or merged. We are saddened when one of our congregations discontinues because the congregation represents people’s lives and faith journeys. The congregations added to the faith story of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and their loss is a loss for all of us.

There are misunderstandings throughout the conference. Some people think we are discontinuing churches because we have a bias against small churches, or urban churches, or rural churches, or African-American churches, or congregations that are very liberal or very conservative. There have even been clergy who have used our present challenges to divide congregations and the denomination. This has created confusion and mistrust and it divides the body of Christ.

The Cabinet and the conference leadership are committed to work with every congregation. We honor and work with all of our congregations and it is not our desire for any congregation to discontinue.

Today it is important for me to dispel a myth – the Cabinet and I do not close churches. There are two ways that our polity provides for discontinuing congregations.

  • The first is by vote of the charge conference. Almost 100 percent of the discontinued churches and all of the merged churches were by action of the church’s charge conference. The leadership of the congregation recognized that they could not continue and voted to discontinue or merge. I know there are people that blame me or blame the district superintendent. They simply misunderstand. The congregation’s leaders voted to discontinue or merge because they did not have sufficient resources to pay for their expenses.
  • The second way a congregation is discontinued is by annual conference action. A recommendation is brought by the superintendent. Then you, the annual conference, either concur or do not concur with the recommendation to discontinue the church. If the Cabinet brings this recommendation, it generally means that the congregation is not paying for its basic responsibilities – pension and health, apportionments, IRS income taxes, property insurance, deferred maintenance, and mortgage or loan payments. Not just one of these, but generally three or more.

Why are churches discontinuing? Declining worship attendance, increased personnel and building costs and a recession have all led to the challenges congregations are facing. As much as we value and love our congregations, we can no longer subsidize congregations at the expense of other congregations. We have also seen that subsidies generally do not turn congregations around. When the subsidy runs out, the congregation does not pay its bills and votes to discontinue. If we were to subsidize all of the churches that needed or wanted a subsidy, your apportionments would increase by millions of dollars. In one year alone, we subsidized more than 1.5 million dollars just for clergy salaries and unpaid pension and health bills. It is not sustainable.

Sometimes a congregation has done everything possible to turn itself around but in spite of its best efforts, transitioning neighborhoods, declining population or other issues make it too difficult to sustain itself. I witnessed Monroe Street congregation in Baltimore give a heroic effort to do all of the right things, but in spite of the faithfulness of a 12-member remnant, it wasn’t enough to fight a mountain of deferred maintenance and rising bills.

Some congregations recognize they need to address issues before it is too late. They merge or become part of a multi-site campus. Trinity Church in Prince Frederick was the merger of three congregations in the 1950’s and today it has a strong mission program, is making new disciples and grew to more than 350 disciples in worship.

First Saints was the recent merger of three congregations who decided they would keep three campuses, but work together as one church. Today they are making more new disciples, have an innovative outreach ministry and are in the process of starting a fourth campus. Brighter Day Ministry has done the same involving four congregations in Southeast D.C.

We invite congregations that are facing challenges to explore these possibilities with us.

All of our congregations are important and today we announce our Small Church Initiative that has begun in the Baltimore Suburban District with 10 congregations and 120 people and will spread throughout the conference. Through the Small Church Initiative we will strengthen leadership, grow our witness in the community and create healthy stewardship.

Today I also want to share with you some thoughts and feelings about the Scriptures and homosexuality. I do this in light of my recent experience at General Conference, the fact that this continues to be a sensitive and difficult issue for our denomination, and also from what I am hearing from non- and nominally religious young people.

The Bible has passages that speak clearly about homosexuality. General Conference has been consistent for the past 40 years in saying that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and there is no indication that General Conference will change its position in the future. Some wonder if continual conversation about homosexuality just makes things worse for us.

I also understand those who are frustrated because the General Conference votes to keep the same policies and you refuse to accept the General Conference's decision. I understand that there are those of you who are hurt by the policies of the church and that your humanity is turned into an issue rather than seeing you as a child of God.

I am convicted, however, by what I am hearing from non- and nominally religious people. They, by in large, do not understand our preoccupation with human sexuality. They even believe we “hate gays and lesbians.” They believe we hate people.

Our inability as a church to hold civil conversations and the reality that our debates communicate more hatred than love is a big problem. To us on the inside, our conversations appear important and clarifying. But to those we seek to reach, to those we want to welcome into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, it appears that we are preoccupied with one group of people. We appear to be single-minded, and maybe even narrow-minded.

Frankly, I was disappointed that General Conference could not even agree to disagree. I think there is a Christ-like path that we, as The United Methodist Church, have failed to find. I feel that, as a denomination, we have not been Christ-like in our discussions about homosexuality.

Here in the Baltimore-Washington Conference we have done a lot better than the rest of the denomination. Our engagement on this issue as a conference two years ago, which provided open conversation that was not condemning but mutually respectful, was one the most Christ-like things we have done.

As our denomination has debated policy on homosexuality, I have not participated in the debate. Rather, I have worked to create space for healthy conversation. Because of our denomination's inability to admit we disagree and because we are alienating those we seek to reach, I've decided to share with you my personal beliefs and how I intend to lead in light of our differences. I do this in the spirit that faithful Christians and good United Methodists will disagree on this and a number of people will disagree with my understanding. I am not trying to change anybody's opinions or beliefs. I just want to let you know my personal thoughts and feelings, my own struggles and how I will lead when we disagree.

I am not a biblical literalist. I do not believe the earth is only 7,000 years old. I think some of the Bible's teachings about the place and role of women, cultural and racial practices, polygamy, concubines, slavery, marriage and divorce reflect the context and thinking of the time in which Scripture was written and not the timeless truth of God.

Historically, and in some denominations still today, a literal interpretation of Scripture has prevented women from being ordained, people of different races from marrying each other, and divorced people from remarrying or serving in ministry. A strict reading of Scripture might cause some to suppose that women should not wear jewelry or cut their hair short and men should not wear long hair or have tattoos.

The Scriptures are the inspired Word of God for my salvation. Exegesis and hermeneutics, or in other words, knowing what Scripture meant in its original context and then interpreting it for today, is the work of every Christian.

Contrary to a literal biblical interpretation, I believe that sometimes couples become estranged beyond reconciliation, divorce happens and the divorced people can find Christ-like love with another partner. I believe that women and men are fully equal. I believe that menstruation is part of the normal cycle of a healthy body and that women are not unclean.

I also personally believe that gay and lesbian people are children of God, loved by God and saved through the love of Jesus Christ. I believe that gays and lesbians can live in loving committed relationships that reflect God’s grace-filled love.

I love the Bible. My entire life is centered in studying the Bible and living in faithful obedience to the God revealed in the Bible. It was Scripture that led me to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Scripture brought me to my knees as a sinner, humbled me through repentance, lifted me in the utter conviction that I have been saved through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and convicted me to join a long and continual discipleship adventure that continues to sanctify my heart.

I do not understand all of the mysteries of human sexuality. I believe that our sexuality is a gift from the Creator to be shared in loving committed relationships. I believe this is true whether we are heterosexual or homosexual.

Good people, faithful Christians, good United Methodists will disagree on this. I want you to know what I think and feel. I want to be open and honest with you rather than to appear not to have an opinion.

I want us not to condemn each other when we disagree. I want us to be able to be open and honest with one another and be willing to listen respectfully to one another. So let it begin with me.

As a bishop of the church, I recognize that I have a responsibility to uphold our Book of Discipline. I will fulfill my responsibilities as a bishop to uphold the Book of Discipline.

I also want our pastors to be pastoral to the needs of the people in their communities they serve. I recognize that this may create a conflict. We all need to do the best we can.

I am not asking anybody to change their beliefs or opinions. I want us to listen to each other and respect each other. And I want us to continue to study and learn.

Today I pledge to you that I will continue to study and discern and make corrections as the Holy Spirit and my study lead me. I also pledge to you that I will treat all people, every individual, as a child of God and as a gift from God. I pledge to be a bishop of the whole church and to lead by respecting all people.

I pray for a new church where the basis of our unity will not be our opinions, but our common commitment to making disciples of Jesus Christ, to care for the hungry and homeless, to end deaths by malaria, to visit the prisoners and to proclaim God's favor on all people. I pray for a church that is neither liberal Methodist nor conservative Methodist, but United Methodist; that is neither heterosexual Methodist nor homosexual Methodist, but United Methodist.

We will get through our current disagreements if we continue to love God, each other and our neighbors, if we will be honest and vulnerable with one other, if we listen respectfully to one another, if we pray together and study together and serve the world together.

The world did not say about the early Christians, "See how they agree with one another," the world said: "See how they love one another." I want non- and nominally religious people of the Baltimore-Washington region to say about us – “See how they love each other.” It can be so if we choose.

One of the reasons for the difficulty we experience about discontinued churches and homosexuality is that there is a lot of mistrust within the church right now. This is understandable. There is deep change occurring in the church and society, which in and of itself creates natural suspicion. Also, leaders have not always made the right choices in the past, and I myself could have and should have engaged us in these forthright conversations about discontinuing churches and homosexuality sooner. I hope this can be a step in developing greater trust at all levels of the church. When we do not trust one another it is difficult for the Holy Spirit to work through us.

It is also difficult for the world to trust the church when we are divided. Society needs us to help sort through some of life’s greatest challenges. Recently, a 52-year-old man committed suicide on the grounds of one of our churches and our nation was divided racially by the killing of Trayvon Martin. We are in the midst of a divisive election that is dividing our nation by rich and poor, white and black, Mormons and other believers. If we, as the church, allow our differences to divide us, to mislead people that we do not love each other or that we do not love a particular group of people, how will we lead the nation toward the light of God, to the grace of Jesus Christ? I know we will never all think alike, but I pray we will all love, like Christ loved.

While we have challenges and differences, we have much more to rejoice about in our life together. You have done great work in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. God has bigger plans for us as we seek to become like Christ, as we call, equip, send and support spiritual leaders to make and cultivate disciples, grow vital Acts 2 congregations and transform the world.

  • Tomorrow we will invite you to endorse a bold 2020 Vision that will launch the conference toward continual mission, growth and health. In challenging times, God calls us to put forth bold plans. The 2020 Vision causes us to gulp, inhaling deeply and sharply; may that gulp be the breath of the Holy Spirit that breathes “a new thing.”
  • We also invite you to join in committing to build 500 units of supportive housing for the homeless. We have already embarked on this initiative. We have three projects progressing in D.C. and are planning two more in Baltimore. In Washington, Emory Church has embarked on a bold housing venture, and through the Be The Change Development Corporation we are working on the 123 unit North Capital Commons, a $24 million project, which already has $20 million committed to the project. The Calvary initiative will repurpose the Calvary Church building into 80 units of supportive housing for the homeless.
  • We invite you to do a new thing by committing to work with us to start two new congregations a year for the next eight years and to start 20 new worship services a year. Congregations that are starting new worship services are growing and connecting with the non- and nominally religious.
  • We invite you to support the new Small Church Initiative that seeks to keep faith with our smaller congregations.
  • We invite you to implement the 16 drivers of vitality as you work toward the five discipleship goals you set to increase vitality throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

I see God doing a new thing; it is the Baltimore-Washington Conference engaged in passionate worship, connecting with the non- and nominally religious; growing through small groups, engaging in risk-taking mission and giving generously to the needs of the world. It is springing forth, can’t you perceive it? Together, let us rise up to meet our challenges, move out in mission, capture the hearts and minds of the non- and nominally religious, and lift up the name of Jesus Christ in everything we do. God bless you all and God bless The United Methodist Church.